Flying Shoes Create a Hero In Arab World

An Iraqi journalist threw two shoes at President Bush during a news conference Sunday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The president was not hurt in the incident. Video by AP
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

BAGHDAD, Dec. 15 -- In hurling footwear and insults at President Bush, Muntadar al-Zaidi expressed what relatives said were his own frustrations with American policy in Iraq and made himself into an overnight celebrity in the Arab world.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Zaidi was distraught over the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. He interviewed widows and orphans in his work as a journalist, once telling an editor that he hoped to meet Bush "and hit him with my shoes." Earlier this year, Zaidi was arrested during an American raid in his neighborhood and released a day later. And in March he covered a U.S. airstrike in which children were trapped under the rubble.

"This incident made him very angry against the American forces," recalled Maithan al-Zaidi, 28, his brother.

On Monday, people across the Middle East applauded Zaidi for expressing their anger at the Bush administration. In cafes and online chat rooms, people joked about the incident with glee, releasing years of frustration with U.S. policies. Thousands of Iraqis demonstrated in the streets demanding his release from Iraqi custody.

Iraqi authorities have not charged Zaidi, but they have arrested him for "his aggressive actions against an official and a visitor of the Iraqi government," Yaseen Majeed, a top media adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said in a statement. Majeed called Zaidi "a disgrace to journalism" and said he would be handed over to the Iraqi justice system for punishment.

Munqeth al-Faroon, an Iraqi court official, said Zaidi could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison for insulting the nation's leader. On Sunday, at a news conference held by Maliki and Bush, Zaidi threw his shoes, one after the other, at the U.S. president, shouting, "This is a farewell kiss!" As Iraqi security guards converged on Zaidi, he yelled: "Dog! Dog!"

U.S. officials said they would leave it to the Iraqi government to prosecute Zaidi.

The shoe assault turned Bush's trip to Iraq into a public relations fiasco, overshadowing the White House's message of impending victory in a long and unpopular war. The incident served as a bookend to Bush's flamboyant 2003 arrival aboard an aircraft carrier decorated with a banner reading "Mission Accomplished," which was meant as a declaration of victory but soon became a symbol of U.S. hubris as the war continued.

Bush responded to the shoe-throwing by quipping that the shoes were "size 10" and joking to reporters, "I didn't know what the guy said, but I saw his sole."

He rejected suggestions that the incident symbolized wider Iraqi displeasure with his administration and the conduct of the war. "I don't think you can take one guy throwing shoes and say this represents a broad movement in Iraq," Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One after leaving Baghdad. "You can try to do that if you want to. I don't think it would be accurate."

But many people are doing that -- in the blogosphere, on television, in editorials. Users of the Facebook networking Web site created groups in support of Zaidi, including one called "I'm a fan of the great hero who hit Bush with his shoes in Baghdad" that had more than 9,000 members Monday night.

The al-Baghdadia television network, which employs Zaidi, broadcast his photo and martial anthems. Arab satellite TV channels and Web sites repeatedly played the scene of Bush ducking as the shoes flew past.

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